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Monday, December 19, 2011

The Dear Leader's Bizarre Obsession

Now that Kim Jong Il has passed away, I wanted to post a narrative that highlights his bizarre obsession with a particular western innovation....cinematic entertainment.

When your creativity hits the proverbial wall, it’s instinctive to seek some new inspiration. A less instinctive inclination is to kidnap foreign talent and force creativity out of them at gunpoint. But leave it to movie fanatic Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s dear leader and patron of the arts, to prove the exception to the rule. By persuading South Korea’s consummate cinematic resource north using a chloroform-soaked towel, Kim ushered in North Korea’s golden age of film.

Long before his father’s death in 1994, Kim Jong Il acted as chief executive to the North Korean movie industry. As such, he made sure each production served double duty as both art form and propaganda vehicle. Per his instructions, the nation’s cinematic output consisted of films illuminating themes such as North Korea’s superior military strength and what horrible people the Japanese are. It was the perfect job for a cinephile like Kim, whose personal movie collection reportedly featureed thousands of titles, including favorites Friday the 13th, Rambo, and anything starring Elizabeth Taylor or Sean Connery.

Despite Kim’s creative influence on the industry during the 1970s (when he served with the country’s Art and Culture Ministries) and the fact that he literally wrote the book on communist film production (1973’s On the Art of the Cinema - Kim Jong Il), North Korean movies were still terrible. Frustrated, Kim sought help by forcing 11 Japanese “cultural consultants” into servitude during the late 1970s and early 1980s, only to have several die inconveniently on the job (some by their own hands). But coerced consulting can only get a film industry so far, and North Korea was still in search of its 'Orson Welles'. Then, in 1978, respected South Korean director Shin Sang Ok suddenly found himself out of work after he angered his own country’s military dictator in a spat over censorship, and Kim Jong Il saw his chance to harness Shin’s artistry.

Kim promptly lured Shin’s ex-wife and close friend, actress Choi Eun Hee, to Hong Kong to “discuss a potential role.” Instead, she was kidnapped.

A distraught Shin searched for Choi, but found himself similarly ambushed by Kim’s minions. After some “convincing” (by way of chloroform and a rag) he was whisked away to North Korea. Choi lived in one of Kim’s palaces, and Shin, having been captured after an attempted escape only months after arriving, lived for four years in a prison for political dissidents, where he subsisted on grass, rice, and communist propaganda.

Shin-Sang-ok with his wife, Choi Eun-hee

In February 1983, Shin and Choi were finally reunited at a dinner party. With little fanfare, Kim commanded them to hug and “suggested” the couple remarry (which they did). They were suddenly confronted with their new moviemaking duties namely, to infuse some life into North Korean cinema and promote government ideals.

For the next several years, Shin and Choi were given access to state-of-the-art equipment, but were saddled with constant supervision. Kim demanded their films lure viewers outside North Korea, but refused to allow the couple any flexibility to nurture such nuance. Instead, Kim encouraged them with an annual salary of millions. Shin later confessed to moments of complacency in his new lavish lifestyle, but he and Choi were less than enthusiastic about their new home, and ultimately, monetary compensation couldn’t overcome their hatred for communism.

Despite Shin’s internal turmoil, the director does have a few standouts from this phase in his career. Among them is Pulgasaria Godzilla-esque film some suspect was meant as a slam to the cult of personality surrounding Kim Jong Il’s father as well as a veiled depiction of Shin’s feelings about his egomaniacal taskmaster. Fortunately, Kim loved it, largely because he interpreted the flick as an outright critique of capitalism.

Even from beneath a pile of accolades and money, Shin and Choi couldn’t stop dreaming of escape. In fact, Kim was building them a mansion and a Hollywood-style movie set when the couple went to Vienna to negotiate film distribution rights in 1986. There, Shin and Choi eluded their bodyguards, fled to the American embassy, and begged for asylum. Discussions they’d secretly taped with their executive producer were used as proof that they hadn’t gone to North Korea for fame and fortune (as they’d been forced to claim during press conferences), and they were allowed to return home to South Korea.

Kim Jong Il had to go back to relying on homegrown talent to crank out roughly 60 movies a year, but he never achieved his dream of winning an international audience. Kim Jong-il continued to issue bold words of guidance to his film-makers. His words are reprinted on a gigantic placard outside the Revolutionary Museum of the Ministry of Culture on the outskirts of Pyongyang: "Make more cartoons."

Kim Jong Il's best role: from Team America: World Police- Kim Jong Il: You have not heard the rast of Kim Jong-Il! I will return! You shall see. I will be back! [enters spaceship and launches out of the palace] - So rong, Earthrings!

Sources: - 4/4/2003